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Luke 5:1-11 Biblical Commentary:
LUKE 5:1-11. JESUS CALLS THE FIRST DISCIPLES
Each of the four Gospels tells of the call of the first disciples:
• In Mark 1:16-20, Jesus calls Peter and Andrew—and then, in a separate action, calls James and John. All four “immediately” leave nets and family to follow Jesus. This is the opening act of Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s Gospel.
• Matthew 4:18-21 closely follows the Markan model.
• The Gospel of John is, as we would expect, distinctive. In that account, Jesus does not call the disciples. Instead, John the Baptist says, in the presence of two of his disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36) and the two disciples begin to follow Jesus. One of those disciples, Andrew, then goes to find his brother, Simon, saying, “We have found the Messiah,” (John 1:41) and the two come to meet Jesus. Jesus gives Simon his new name, Peter. There is no talk of nets or fish or disciples who leave everything behind to follow Jesus. Even though this is not a Synoptic Gospel, this is again the opening act of Jesus’ ministry.
• Luke’s account is also distinctive. It is the lengthiest of the four accounts. In this Gospel, Jesus begins his ministry, not with the call of the disciples, but with his sermon at the Nazareth synagogue. He then drives out an unclean spirit (4:31-37), heals Simon’s mother-in-law (4:38-41), and preaches in the synagogues of Judea (4:42-44). These actions result in crowds which “pressed on him and heard the word of God” (5:1). They also establish a rationale for the disciples to follow Jesus.
This is the only account of the call stories to mention the great catch of fish, although the Gospel of John includes a similar story—but only after the resurrection (John 21:1-23). Luke’s account is not a typical call story, because Jesus does not extend a formal invitation to discipleship, but says simply, “Don’t be afraid. From now on you will be catching people” (5:10). This account is also distinctive in that it focuses on Simon Peter, mentioning James and John only briefly in verse 10 and Andrew not at all.
The response of the crowd (v. 1) and the disciples (vv. 3-11) presents a nice counterpoint to the rejection that Jesus has just experienced in the Nazareth synagogue (4:16-30).
Peter’s response to the miracle of the abundant catch fits nicely with the Old Testament and Epistle lessons:
• Isaiah 6:1-8 tells the story of the call of Isaiah, who protested, “Woe is me! For I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh of Armies!” We might consider this story a model for the Gospel lesson. Both Isaiah and Peter feel the magnitude of their unworthiness in the presence of the holy. Both protest their unworthiness. A seraph cleanses Isaiah lips with a burning coal, and Jesus has a cleansing word for Peter. Both Isaiah and Peter prove faithful to the call.
• In 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Paul pronounces himself “the least of the apostles, who is not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the assembly of God.”
Jesus’ work has grown to require the recruitment of disciples. Luke will expand this theme with:
• The call of Levi (5:27-32)
• The call of the Twelve (6:12-16)
• The mission of the Twelve (9:1-6)
• The mission of the Seventy (10:1-20)
• The seven chosen to serve (Acts 6:1-7)
• The conversion of Saul (Acts 9:1-22)
• The men of Cyprus and Cyrene who proclaimed Christ in Antioch (Acts 11:20-24)
• The commissioning of Barnabas and Saul (Acts 13:1-3).
God chooses to work through human beings, vessels of clay bearing the treasure of the Gospel (2 Corinthians 4:7). Because God chooses to work in this way, our response is crucial.
LUKE 5:1-3. THE MULTITUDE PRESSED ON HIM
1Now it happened, while the multitude pressed on him and heard the word of God, that he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret. 2He saw two boats standing by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them, and were washing their nets. 3He entered into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat.
“Now it happened, while the multitude pressed on him and heard the word of God, that he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret” (v. 1). Gennesaret is a region at the north end of the Sea of Galilee. Luke refers to the sea as the lake of Gennesaret.
“while the multitude pressed on him and heard the word of God” (v. 1a). The crowds are pressing in on Jesus, excited to see the young prophet, and hoping to hear “the word of God” (v. 1). Luke uses that phrase, “word of God,” frequently (3:2; 8:11, 21; 11:28; Acts 4:31; 6:2, 7; 8:14; 11:1; 13:5, 7, 46; 17:13; 18:11). Recently, Jesus told the multitudes who were trying to keep him with them, “I must preach the good news of the Kingdom of God to the other cities also” (4:43)—thus equating Jesus’ preaching with news of the kingdom of God. In the book of Acts, Luke uses “word of God” more broadly—to encompass the full content of the apostles’ preaching.
“He saw two boats standing by the lake” (v. 2a). The significance of two boats will become apparent in verse 7 when the disciples in Simon’s boat must signal their partners in the other boat to come and help with the massive catch of fish.
“but the fishermen had gone out of them, and were washing their nets” (v. 2b). The fishermen are cleaning their nets after a long night. They must be tired and discouraged after a long, fruitless night. They are ready to call it a day. It is time to go home, to eat, and to get some sleep.
“He entered into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land” (v. 3a). This is Simon’s first appearance in this Gospel (although his name was mentioned in 4:38), and it is his first act of obedience. Given his fatigue and frustration, Simon cannot be in the best mood at this moment. He is ready to go home—not to get back into his boat. The amazing thing is not that Simon responds favorably later after seeing the miracle of the great catch, but that he responds favorably now to Jesus’ request to go out once again.
In their versions of this story, Mark and Matthew mention Simon, Andrew, James, and John (Mark 1:16-20; Matthew 4:18-22). We know that Luke uses Mark as one of his sources, so we must ask why he mentions only Simon here. The answer must be that Luke, having seen Mark’s unattractive portrayal of Peter and knowing of Peter’s great work in the early church, singles out Peter to show him in a more favorable light. Throughout Luke-Acts, Luke treats Peter more favorably than do Mark or Matthew.
“He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat” (v. 3b). The boat is probably large enough for Jesus to stand, but teachers sit to teach. In this Gospel, Jesus began his ministry in synagogues (4:16-30; 42-44), but now he takes his ministry to the people—to ordinary places where ordinary people spend their days. The boat becomes his pulpit—a solution to the press of the crowd (v. 1b).
LUKE 5:4-7. AT YOUR WORD
4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep, and let down your nets for a catch.” 5Simon answered him, “Master (Greek: epistata), we worked all night, and took nothing; but at your word I will let down the net.” 6When they had done this, they caught a great multitude of fish, and their net was breaking. 7They beckoned to their partners in the other boat, that they should come and help them. They came, and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.
“Put out into the deep, and let down your nets for a catch” (v. 4). These words constitute a test for Simon. They also present Simon with an opportunity to see the kinds of wonders of which Jesus is capable. Will Simon obey? Will he trust Jesus?
“Master (epistata), we worked all night, and took nothing” (v. 5a). Peter’s common sense tells him that there is no reason to try again. He must hate to ask the other men to “saddle up” and to get the newly cleaned nets dirty again. He voices his doubt to Jesus, but nevertheless addresses Jesus as Master (epistata)—a person who stands over the others, such as a commander or officer.
Peter’s common sense tells him that there is no reason to try again. He must hate to ask the other men to “saddle up” and to get the newly cleaned nets dirty again. He voices his doubt to Jesus, but nevertheless addresses Jesus as Master (Greek: epistata), a title used in the Gospels for Jesus only in Luke and used only by the disciples (8:24, 45; 9:33; 49; 17:13) and, in one instance, by a person asking for help (17:13). It means “one who ‘stands over’ as an authority” (Johnson, 88).
“But at your word, I will let down the net” (v. 5b). This is Peter’s second act of obedience—again remarkable. Jesus’ instructions are counter-intuitive. Peter is the fisherman, and knows best where to find fish. He and his partners have fished all night without results—have proved that there are no fish to be caught. They have been washing nets, wrapping things up (v. 2). They are tired—eager to go home. Letting down the nets again will necessitate additional cleanup—not an attractive prospect for tired, frustrated fishermen.
But Peter accepts Jesus’ word as authoritative. If Jesus says it, Peter will do it. This obedience in the face of doubt opens the door to the miracle. So with us! Only when we are obedient can we harness Christ’s power and experience his miracles.
“When they had done this, they caught a great multitude of fish, and their net was breaking” (v. 6). In verse 5b, Peter says that he will let down the nets, but verse 6 suggests that he enlisted the help of the crew. Commercial fishing involves large nets and requires teamwork.
The great catch brings the disciples to the brink of disaster—the blessing is almost too much. In the next chapter, Jesus will teach the disciples, “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be given to you. For with the same measure you measure it will be measured back to you” (6:38). Too often, we measure obedience and charity with an eyedropper instead of a bucket, but eyedropper faith generates only eyedropper rewards. Jesus prefers giving more generously—bucket rewards—fire-hose rewards!
“They beckoned to their partners in the other boat, that they should come and help them. They came, and filled both boats, so that they began to sink” (v. 7). This is a miracle of abundance like the manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16), the widow’s meal and oil (1 Kings 17:8-16), the unending supply of oil (2 Kings 4:1-7), and Elisha’s feeding a hundred men with twenty loaves of bread (2 Kings 4:42-44). Later in this Gospel, Jesus will feed five thousand with five loaves and two fish (9:12-17). The Gospel of John reports the miracle of wine at Cana (John 2:1-11). These abundance miracles have two common characteristics: (1) they meet human needs and (2) they demonstrate God’s power. The outcome of this particular miracle is that the disciples “left everything, and followed him” (v. 11).
LUKE 5:8-11. THEY LEFT EVERYTHING, AND FOLLOWED HIM
8But Simon Peter, when he saw it, fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, Lord.” 9For he was amazed, and all who were with him, at the catch of fish which they had caught;10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid. From now on you will be catching (Greek: zogron—capture alive) people (Greek: anthropous—men) alive.” 11When they had brought their boats to land, they left everything, and followed him.
“But Simon Peter, when he saw it, fell down at Jesus’ knees” (v. 8a). This is the first time that Simon is called Peter in this Gospel. The two names, Simon Peter, are used together frequently in the Gospel of John, but only here and on the occasion of Peter’s confession (Matthew 16:16) in the Synoptics.
“Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, Lord” (v. 8b). This is an epiphany story—a moment of sudden insight—especially for Peter. Faced with a miracle, he finds himself in the presence of the Holy and overwhelmed by his own unholiness. Like a poorly dressed person in elegant company, Peter wants only to escape the unfavorable contrast.
• This was also the response of Moses at the burning bush at his call—”Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6).
• It was also the response of Isaiah at his call—”Woe is me! For I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh of Armies!” (Isaiah 6:5).
• Now it is the response of Peter at his call.
Each of these three became great Godly leaders, but their greatness had its roots, not in their wisdom, talents, or spirituality, but in God’s call. God calls whom God calls—and God often gets the best mileage out of the least likely candidates. Jesus says, “For whoever is least among you all, this one will be great” (9:48)—perhaps because the least are quicker to respond—less likely to count the cost—more apt to trust.
Happily, God calls each of us to some important task—often one that seems of no more consequence than letting down the nets one more time. The fishermen who obeyed Jesus that day could not imagine that, two thousand years later, we would still be deriving spiritual nourishment from the story of their obedience—but we are. It matters not whether Christ calls us to serve on a faraway mission field or to a far humbler task—ushering, singing in the choir, setting up coffee, visiting a shut-in, feeding a hungry person, or giving our last dollar. In Christ’s hands, the modest task becomes a vehicle for epiphany—revelation—discovery—greater faith. Christ can turn our most humble act of obedience into a net-breaking, boat-sinking miracle of abundance.
We have largely lost our sense of wonder and fear in God’s presence. Instead, we worship at the altar of science and technology, which present us with new wonders every day. We worship at the altar of self-esteem, resisting humility and contriteness as if they constituted some sort of emotional disease. We even imagine that we have the right to set conditions under which we will accept God—and to spell out attributes that we expect God to bring to the table if he is to win our approval—but, in our better moments, we kneel in God’s presence, acknowledging our debt to God for every breath that we take.
Simon is correct when he says that he is a sinful man, but Jesus has come to redeem sinners and outcasts, as he demonstrates in this chapter—touching a leper (5:12-16); forgiving the sins of a paralytic (5:17-26); calling a tax collector (5:27-28); and sitting at table with tax collectors and sinners (5:29-32). He says, “Those who are healthy have no need for a physician, but those who are sick do” (5:31).
“For he was amazed, and all who were with him” (v. 9). Luke singles out Peter as the key disciple in this story, but it is not only Peter who is amazed, but all of them. Luke finally names Peter’s partners, James and John (v. 10a). He does not mention Andrew.
“Jesus said to Simon, ‘Don’t be afraid'” (v. 10). These were the words of the angel, who said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (1:30) and “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (2:10). Jesus will use these words twice again in this Gospel. “Therefore don’t be afraid. You are of more value than many sparrows” (12:7) and “Don’t be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom” (12:32).
“From now on you will be catching (zogron—capture alive) people alive” (v. 10b). Jesus promises to expand the role that these fishermen will play—from catching fish in their nets to catching people. Their work will be evangelistic—spreading the Good News of the grace available through Jesus.
The fulfillment of Jesus’ promise will begin in earnest at Pentecost. Peter will preach a sermon, and three thousand people will be baptized in one day—and that will be just the beginning. The work continues. We are Peter’s heirs, proclaiming the Gospel and witnessing to Christ.
Ours is an uncomfortable role in a world that demands tolerance of all beliefs but, nevertheless, despises Christian belief. Of course, it was not comfortable for Peter either. The book of Acts tells us that he experienced opposition and arrest. Tradition tells us that he died by crucifixion.
Catching fish has limits as a metaphor for winning disciples, because the fate of the caught fish is to be killed and eaten while the disciple’s role is to live for Christ. The Greek word zogron is commonly used for trapping—capturing alive. Jesus’ disciples will be inviting people into the kingdom of God, where they will become free from the things that had bound them.
“When they had brought their boats to land, they left everything, and followed him” (v. 11). Jesus addresses Simon, but the other disciples hear the words to include them as well. They too abandon everything to follow Jesus.
In their versions of this story, Mark and Matthew have the fishermen leaving their father and their boat to follow Jesus (Mark 1:20; Matthew 4:22). Luke tells us that they left everything (Stein, 170). This kind of abandonment is characteristic of discipleship:
• Levi leaves his tax booth to follow Jesus (Luke 5:27-28).
• Jesus calls three men to make an abrupt break with their past (Luke 9:57-62).
• Jesus challenges the Rich Young Ruler to sell everything and to give it to the poor as a precondition of discipleship (18:18-22).
Discipleship, then, means shifting one’s concerns from the things of this world to the things of God. In the book of Acts, Luke will continue this emphasis with the story of the early church sharing everything in common (Acts 2:44-47).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Bock, Darrell L., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series: Luke, Vol. 3 (Downers Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 1994)
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